Regardless of whether or not voters approve, ballot measures must adhere to state law. That is the impetus behind legal challenges to Initiative 976, passed statewide this month to limit the cost of vehicle registration.
Tim Eyman, who supported I-976, surely understands this as well as anybody. The anti-tax maven has repeatedly put measures in front of voters only to see them pass but not stand up to legal scrutiny. Since 1998, Eyman has promoted 17 measures that landed on the ballot; 11 of them were approved, but eight of those 11 have subsequently been overturned by the courts.
The latest challenge, led by King County and the City of Seattle, was filed quickly after I-976 passed with 53 percent of the vote. The suit contends that the measure violates a requirement that initiatives be limited to a single subject; that its title misled voters; that it repeals state statutes without full disclosure to voters; and that the statewide vote repeals decisions of local voters by removing money from regional transportation initiatives.
Eyman responded in an email blast, mixed among his frequent fundraising pitches, writing “Rather than accept the voters’ clear decision, Seattle government is suing the voters because the voters disobeyed and voted for it anyway. It’s a slap in the face to the people who clearly oppose these dishonest vehicle taxes.”
Ultimately, it will be up to the courts to decide the legality of I-976, which would reduce car tabs to $30. But Eyman’s assertion that the lawsuit simply is a result of government thumbing its nose at the public is misguided, disingenuous and divisive. Given the frequency with which Eyman’s initiatives have been ruled unconstitutional, it is no surprise that local governments would find reason to challenge the new law.
Adding to the drama is concern over the state Office of the Attorney General being tasked with defending I-976 in court. That office is involved in a long-running legal battle with Eyman, alleging that he violated campaign finance laws regarding previous ballot measures. In September, a Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled that $766,000 in payments Eyman had claimed as gifts were really contributions to various initiative campaigns.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson noted that it is the duty of his office to defend I-976 and that it “takes that responsibility very seriously.” The office’s defense of an earlier Eyman measure — Initiative 1366, which was overturned by the state Supreme Court — earned praise from Eyman for its methodical and meticulous manner. That being said, there probably is little downside to the office hiring outside counsel to handle the I-976 case.
According to the Washington State Office of Financial Management, Initiative 976 will gut transportation budgets throughout the region by about $4 billion over the next decade, and Gov. Jay Inslee immediately delayed all projects that have not yet been started. Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle told The Columbian: “The council now will need to figure out: Do we find new revenue? Do we cut those new programs, and where do we make those cuts? Because money doesn’t grow on trees.”
Those questions are being repeated by municipal government throughout Washington. And while the vote reflects the will of the people, the most pressing question remains the legality of I-976. For 20 years, Eyman has effectively seized upon the anti-tax furor of citizens to land initiatives on the ballot and to gin up support from voters.
His track record in the courts, however, is not as sterling.